An Intimate Look at the Body of Crisis – Revisiting Action Field Kodra 2015 | Kodra Fresh: ‘Happy Accidents’

ANTHI ARGYRIOU

ABSTRACT: In this essay I revisit the overarching themes and the curatorial approach of one of the main exhibitions of Action Field Kodra 2015 visual arts festival (hereby referred as AFK) in Thessaloniki, Greece and discuss its social and political context in view of the financial, political and social crisis. Some of the underlying questions examined are: How can an art festival articulate a statement on the pressing issues of its time addressing local as well as global concerns? Can we contrive artistic responses and curatorial practices to generate new patterns of social interaction and collective meaning? Is theory an appropriate tool for deciphering and communicating these ruminations? How is the ‘body’ used in art and theory both literally, as primary matter and metaphorically, as a concept in the time of crisis? To further substantiate this study, the essay discusses the curatorial concept and strategy, illustrated with some of the artworks featured in the exhibition.*

 

Two Worlds, Thodoris Trampas, 2013, Courtesy Thodoris Trampas/Action Field Kodra 2015

Two Worlds, Thodoris Trampas, 2013, Courtesy Thodoris Trampas/Action Field Kodra 2015

 

This essay revisits the overarching themes and the curatorial practices of one of the main exhibitions of Action Field Kodra 2015, Kodra Fresh. I will focus on the social and political context of the exhibition in view of the financial, political and social crisis which has been ravaging the country these past years, looking at it by means of aesthetic and theoretical analysis. Some of the underlying questions are: How can an art festival articulate a statement on the pressing issues of its time addressing local as well as global issues? Can we contrive artistic responses and curatorial practices to generate new patterns of social interaction and collective meaning? Is theory an appropriate tool for deciphering and communicating these ruminations? Moreover, how is the ‘body’ used in art and theory both literally and metaphorically in times of crisis? How can bodies ‘speak’ about what they experience and how can art further visualize that ‘speech’?

argyriou_action-field-kodra

Action Field Kodra visual arts festival, Main Venue, Opening Night, 2015, Courtesy Action Field Kodra

Kodra Fresh is an annual exhibition featuring young and emerging artists who have recently graduated from the Schools of Fine Arts in Greece and abroad, an exhibition I had the chance to organize and curate in its two last editions (2014-15). An Open Call delineating the concept of the exhibition invites artists to submit their applications and the curator of the exhibition, in collaboration with a team of art professionals, chooses the final participating artists and artworks. The festival’s central concept for its 2015 edition was “Error”; in the light of the unremitting economic, social and political unrest in the country, exhibitions and events of the festival attempted to reconsider through contemporary artistic practices the financial crisis and its social and political impact. Parallel to the festival, groundbreaking events shook the country and the rest of Europe; referendum on austerity measures, ‘Grexit’ or ‘Graccident’ (accidental Grexit), capital controls, and a whole range of unprecedented shifts turned this period into one of the most tumultuous and troublesome in modern Greek history. In this context, the introductory text of the festival set the theoretical framework thusly:

At a first glimpse, the signified of the word, is negatively charged. Nevertheless, by approaching the signifier, positive concepts are automatically generated, including correction as a need for reintroduction, change as a prerequisite for evolution, response to unpredicted parameters as a means of expression. Starting from the aforementioned theme, the structure of Action Field Kodra 2015 was developed on the basis of models for tackling crises that result from an erroneous process. “Error” defines a condition which is terminal but not stagnant. It may be the milestone of a deviation or a change of course and therefore redefines the entire reference framework of a society, of its activity and concerns, its artistic creation and initiatives.1

 

Art Festivals in the Realm of the Real

Embodying Crisis: Problematizing the ‘Error’

“The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none.
Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again.”
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho

In the beginning of the 20th century (1915–1917), Sigmund Freud argued in his lectures at the University of Vienna about the value of errors, that is, those recurrent actions or omissions that are regularly seen as symptomatic, superfluous, or simply useless. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life was first published in 1901, and A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis in 1917. In both monographs, the father of psychoanalysis attempts, using numerous examples, to prove that speech, writing, hand, memory, or typewriting slips—to name only a few indicative categories with which he engages—must be dealt with as symptoms of important mental processes. As he puts it:

We know not only that they [errors] are psychic acts, in which we can recognize meaning and purpose, and that they arise through the mutual interference of two different intentions, but, in addition, we know that one of these intentions must have undergone a certain suppression in order to be able to manifest itself through interference with the other. The interfering intention must itself first be interfered with before it can become interfering. […] But errors are compromise formations. They mean some success and some failure for each of the two purposes. The endangered intention is neither completely suppressed nor does it […] come through wholly intact.2

Errors as symptoms of an unintentional or intentional repression in all their possible manifestations—such as in expressions of conflict, competition and eventually synthesis or compromise—echoed for many decades a part of philosophical (or otherwise) contemplation.

Carrying such concerns over to the field of contemporary art we immediately find ourselves in travelled paths; improvisation, experiment, deflection and the preconscious intruded into the artistic adventures a long time ago, apparent already in the movements of modernism (dada, surrealism, fluxus, abstract expressionism, and, of course, later on, in performance, new media, glitch art, etc.). However, this proclivity that artistic creation has, according to the historical context, each time reformulates its rules and frame of reference. Approaching the topic from the field of Art History, Pepi Rigopoulou is correct when she argues that “if we examine the movements of the second half of the 20th century more broadly, we will ascertain that many elements, like the mask and the doll, man and wife, […] the usage of the body, […] the mechanical, ritualistic, political, the scandalous and grotesque element (and more), repeat basic traits of the artistic creation of the early 20th century.”3

psari-3892

Ixis afixis ouk, 2015, Spyros Prokopiou, Courtesy Spyros Prokopiou / Action Field Kodra 2015, Photo: pSari Visual Productions

Under this thematic umbrella, Kodra Fresh was organized as an exhibition experimenting with the notion of the accident, the slip, the discontinuity. Titled “Happy Accidents”, Kodra Fresh formulated an incongruous artistic constellation, a series of audio-visual studies on conflict, irony and interference as structural elements of artistic creation. Nineteen artists were featured, approaching with sensitivity – yet sarcastically – stereotypes and standardization, representation of the self and its malfunctions, psychological mechanisms of pleasure and transcendental faith, contemporary visualizations of the body and deformation (as for instance in Spyros Procopiou’s paintings).

In AFK 2015, for the first time, the traditional senior and graduate students’ exhibition was accompanied by a pilot project that had a rigorous educational character. The project was the result of a close collaboration with distinguished emerging artists, who are best known for deploying innovative approaches in their respective fields. It was actualized in cooperation with Athens Video Dance Project (AVDP), and the visual artist and performer Fotini Kalle. A three-day intensive workshop on videodance—a hybrid medium combining dancing and cinematography—, a scheduled projection of international videodance artworks, and a four-hour masterclass on the art of performance (both theory and practice) were the result of it.

Fotini Kalle, Performance Masterclass, Courtesy Fotini Kalle/Action Field Kodra 2015

Fotini Kalle, Performance Masterclass, Courtesy Fotini Kalle/Action Field Kodra 2015

Forms of living art engaged with the human body are deeply concerned with power relations and the subsequent deviations from them, for the body has always been the site of desire as well as abjection, vulnerability, trauma, transformation, violence and annihilation; surely no art form can demonstrate a more powerful affinity to the questions of Error and Happy Accidents considered in the context of socio-political antagonism. Thinking about the crisis in a multi-faceted manner, one can immediately realize that the body is a collective, primary subject under attack; impoverishment, cutbacks in the public health system and the rise of extreme political ideas, increasing violence in the public space, all pertaining to the aftermath of the crisis, threaten the very idea of bodily existence.

In addition to the parallel program which was entirely dedicated to bodily artistic practices, the opening evening hosted Thodoris Trampas’ performance Two Worlds. The artist, by using his body in a choreographic struggle for balance, tried to overpower the weight of a big piece of ice. A rope, fastened on the ceiling, held the two “bodies” that were tied to its ends. After a while, as the performance unfolded, Trampas shattered the ice, releasing in this way his body from the counterbalancing forces, while also delivering it to inescapable gravity. Hence, oscillations as well as swinging were terminated. A system of relationships that demonstrated the interdependent reliance that keeps us accountable for our actions—and also for the actions of others—was mapped and deconstructed through the force and intensity that the body alone can release in live action.

Two Worlds, Thodoris Trampas, 2015, Performance View, Photo: pSari Visual Productions, Courtesy Thodoris Trampas/Action Field Kodra 2015

 

Body and Power Structures: On the Verge of Aesthetics

“That logic of the bodies that are found in place in a distribution of the communal and the private, which is also a distribution of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, I have suggested to call it ‘police.’ Politics is the act that rends police’s order […] Politics begins when a breach occurs in the distribution of spaces and abilities—and inabilities.”
Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator

In Yolanda Gail Devers, 1992, Giorgos Nikas presents a video projection and a two channel audio installation. He focuses on the finishing moment of the women’s 100-meter hurdles at the Barcelona Olympic Games. Using archival material from the photo finish, Nikas concentrates on the instrument that is used in track and field sports to ensure the legitimacy and accuracy of the competition and of the athletes’ performances. The leading athlete from the U.S.A., who fell a few meters before the finish, gave the win to the Greek athlete. The viewer is embosomed by the American broadcast of the competition from one of the audio channels, and the Greek broadcast from the other. This “happy accident” that filled the Greeks with national pride had the reverse effect for the American people. By transliterating a sporting event into an artistic idiom, Nikas matches two fields against each other, that is, sports and art. How disputable is the objectivity of either success or failure? The perspectives of the viewers and of the acting subject are intertwined so as to shake the manifold scheme of “error”, in a space as strict and measurable as in sports. The bodies of the athletes, an ideal subject for accurate measurement, comparison and evaluation in the commercialized and spectacularized global sports arena, are thus transformed into objects of artistic detournement. Even in the case of such an extremely standardised bodily performance, a simple rearrangement of the video and audio representation of the event in question, reveals the versatility of roles, positions and expected reactions.

Yolanda Gail Devers, 1992, George Nikas, 2014, video still, Courtesy: George Nikas

Yolanda Gail Devers, 1992, George Nikas, 2014, video still, Courtesy: George Nikas

Thinking about the body, the social field and power relations in contemporary artistic practices naturally invites us to consider Jacques Rancière’s emblematic writings, specifically regarding our initial question of collective meaning and knowledge production through social interaction initiated by artistic gestures. In The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière explores the relationships developed between the artist, artwork and spectator. Already in the beginning of his study, he acknowledges that the field of modern art is the space where reigns the principle of “[blurring] the distribution of roles” and of trespassed “boundaries” of what hitherto were distinct fields of knowledge and technique.4 By focusing his polemic on critical art and tradition, the French philosopher points out three different directions that such a tendency may follow: the first appertains to a form of “consumerist hyper-activism” or even “outsize[d] artistic egos.”5 The second, often hand-in-hand with the first, is articulated based on a broader, postmodern reality of “a constant exchange of role and identities, the real and the virtual, the organic and mechanical and information-technology prostheses.”6 For the third alternative, Rancière holds the challenge not of impressing or riveting the spectator but, on the contrary, of problematizing “the cause-effect relationship itself and the set of presuppositions that sustain the logic of stultification.”7 Puzzled primarily by the means of theatre and performance, Rancière makes a claim for an artistic practice in which the spectators “play the role of active interpreters” and “develop their own translation in order to appropriate the ‘story’ and make it their own story.” After all, as he argues, “[a]n emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators.”8

Taking all this into the realm of the socio-political, if late capitalism seems to have incorporated the subversive demands of the historical movements of the past—during the 60’s and, mainly, that of May 1968 in France—it did so by spreading the illusion of the individual’s limitless ability to ‘play’ both in isolation as well as with the world around her/him. Clearly, this propensity was linked to the identitarian political issues of that period. However, decades later, the outcome of those encounters seems at least unsettled. The promise of limitless individual autonomy and self-determination in western democracies in turn begot two counterbalancing powers: the left-wing melancholy—which has profoundly influenced the ambient nostalgic syndrome—and the revived right-wing frenzy.9 Both trends seem shockingly relevant to the current Greek status quo, but also to the European one; while left parties and movements have either become miserable governmental managers of neoliberal austerity policies or downscaled to a state of inertia, far right ideologies and populist rhetoric are undoubtedly on the rise.

Shifting back to theory again, the origins of Rancière’s proposition are to be found in his previous studies, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987) and The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2004). In these two works he outlines a definition of aesthetics with which he establishes the foundation of politics as the “delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise.”10 Who speaks, who is listened to, who is visible and who is not; they all comprise organic parts of the current aesthetic and political regime. For Rancière, the hope for emancipation and for art’s subversive power is traced in the redistribution of the roles and the disordering of the hitherto allocated positions. The radical subversion of how we conceptualize the notions of spectator as passive recipient in contrast to the agencies of action and speech are at the core of his proposal. After all, as he explicitly contends, “[t]he arts only ever lend to projects of domination or emancipation what they are able to lend to them, that is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible.”11

Nevertheless, what really defines artistic creativity is its interpolation as the third factor in the transmission of the supposed knowledge, narration, or feeling between agent and spectator. The presumption that calls for the form as the vehicle of a smooth transmission of a specific message from the former (transmitter) to the latter (recipient) is unwarranted and unjustified, as this third factor comprises the undecidable, which is what will eventually determine the personal spiritual adventure for both transmitter and recipient.12 The idea of noise and the parasite, dominant in Michel Serres’ book The Parasite, is clearly echoed here, as noise and interference were a recurrent pattern in many featured artworks.

Hier, bleib, nein, Saul Sanchez, 2013, video still, Courtesy Saul Sanchez

Hier, bleib, nein, Saul Sanchez, 2013, video still, Courtesy Saul Sanchez

For instance, in Saul Sanchez’s video Hier, bleib, nein, a German shepherd receives orders from an unknown person we cannot see; we only hear his steady, authoritative tone. The stable camera records the animal’s reactions, who completely ignores the orders. It walks around, rests, stands, always in perfect non-conformity to both the synchronicity of the order’s articulation as well as its content. The loud orders in German dominate the dark projection room but remain untranslated (there are no subtitles in the video), with no meaning whatsoever for either the video’s protagonist or the viewers. They are but noise to their ears.

Altera Pars II, Evita Pagona, 2015, Courtesy Evita Pagona

Altera Pars II, Evita Pagona, 2015, Courtesy Evita Pagona

Evita Pagona presented an installation consisting of three paintings and one video. In her portraits, she explored representation at the brink of magical realism by presenting in an intense atmospheric fashion persons with mental and sleeping disorders (Dysania), trapped in a distressing idleness, unable to respond to external stimuli—persons hermetically sealed in their troubled, alien internal world. The Sequence video was a composition of sound and image coming from the public speeches of two persons, both leaders of their groups: the fundamentalist ecclesiastical representative and the extreme racist/fascist Greek political party, Golden Dawn. The declarations of hate they articulate were mixed together. The images of the speakers succeeded one another and the correspondence between face and voice was breached. Who speaks, what does he say, and who is listening? Who can manage to escape in this general tumult? Who can react? Speech and image are thus deconstructed and reconstituted within an eruption of musical rhythms and driving visual effects; positions are disrupted, faces as active subjects and passive recipients are walking on tightropes in an insecure balance. The distinction between validation/document and mythmaking is now indiscernible. Without anticipating a rearrangement of the positions, the installation questions this certainty, spreading the scent of a forthcoming possibility. Will the still recipients manage to stand against this cascade or will they remain boxed into their careful frames?

Dysania, Evita Pagona, 2015, Courtesy Evita Pagona

Dysania, Evita Pagona, 2015, Courtesy Evita Pagona

In both examples, bodies find themselves amidst a dysfunctional communication system, albeit articulated in very different terms. What is most interesting, not only about these two cases but also about the majority of the featured artworks, is that artists managed to demonstrate through such incongruous ways that a different configuration of objects, images and sound displayed through art can showcase bodies in distress while at the same time invite visitors to participate, acknowledge and instantly share their condition.

I have tried to delineate the curatorial concept and approach as well as some of the featured artworks in Action Field Kodra 2015, using them as an example of how a medium scale art show can handle timely concerns without being overwhelmed by them. In my opinion, it would be more than arrogant and pretentious to claim that an art event can do much more than that. Nevertheless, in our case, the focus on active participation and new collaborations, the flexible curatorial concept, and an unflinching commitment to the promotion of young artists and experimental art forms, created a space for a very open process of shared creativity where the ‘body’ of the exhibition, the bodies of the performers, those of the visitors and all kinds of participants came together and produced knowledge, experience and new meanings. However implicitly, most of the artists attempted to respond to these critical times, avoiding straightforward references which could easily lapse into clichéd imagery. We witnessed the body in deformation, in trauma, in challenge and suffering, in indifference and disobedience. Visualizations of liminal conditions, such as the deep crisis we are experiencing right now, tend to withhold smooth interpretations. Nonetheless, the body, as a clear index of human existence, undergoes this transitional and, at times, traumatic process, and artistic practices seem to be a very appropriate means to communicate this process.

I would like to conclude this brief analysis by citing Pepi Rigopoulou’s words in praise of artistic creation: “[…] the language of images has a driving rhythm and an irreconcilable inscrutability, which discourse struggles to catch and subjugate without ever completely accomplishing it.”13

 

 

ENDNOTES

*Parts of this essay were initially written for the AFK 2015 exhibition catalogue (upcoming publication) of which the author is a co-curator. Those parts were translated from Greek to English by the team of interpretit (http://www.interpretit.eu/).
1 Excerpt from the AFK 2015 curators’ text written by the author, Dimitris Michalaros and Panagis Koutsokostas (Main Curators/Coordinators).
2 Freud, Sigmund, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Translated by G. Stanley Hall. New York: Horace Liveright, 1920, 54–55.
3 Pepi Rigopoulou, Το Σώμα: Ικεσία και Απειλή [Body: Appeal and Threat]. Athens: Plethron, 2008, 329. She returns to the same topic, this time with a different articulation, on pp. 541–542.
4 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London and New York: Verso, 20–21.
Ibid., 21.
Ibid.
Ibid., 22.
Ibid.
Ibid., 37.
10 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated by Gabriel Rockhill. London and New York: Continuum, 13.
11 Ibid., 19.
12 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London and New York: Verso, 14–18. As he characteristically puts it, “[i] is the third thing that is owned by no one, whose meaning is owned by no one, but which subsists between them excluding any uniform transmission any identity of cause and effect” (15).
13 Pepi Rigopoulou, Το Σώμα: Ικεσία και Απειλή [Body: Appeal and Threat]. Athens: Plethron, 2008, 116.

 

In Defense of the Impending Death of a Collaborative Platform

MICHELLE LACOMBE

ABSTRACT: I have an instinct to hold on to new things. To want to make them last at times way longer than they should. In an act of ultimate possession, I have been known to destroy, or let erode, the very thing I am holding on to so that by the time I can no longer hold on, the thing is no longer what I was gripping. Somewhere in my life I was taught that there was a heroism in this irrational demonstration of commitment. And, while I do think there is value in the sacrifice inherent to emotional labour, locating that worth in neoliberal values of endless persistence is useless and damaging. Instead, I remind myself that letting go, abandoning and quitting can be an equal act of care and commitment.

 

VIVA! Suppers, Bazil Alzeri, 2013. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

VIVA! Suppers, Bazil Alzeri, 2013. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

When It Started

Initiated by Patrick Lacasse and Alexis Bellavance, VIVA! Art Action was established in 2006 by six artist-run centres from Greater Montreal as a collaborative platform through which to foster and support action art in its most singular, difficult and surprising forms. This includes – but is not limited to – performance, public intervention, relational projects, body art, happenings and furtive action. Although initially conceived of as a punctual event, after the success of the first edition – which vividly demonstrated both an interest and a need for such a platform in Montreal –the founders agreed to continue the initiative in the form of an international biennial festival.

Over the years, VIVA!’s structure has evolved organically and slowly between the founding members, non-profit contemporary art centres who remained collectively responsible for all aspects of the event and organization until 2012, when I was hired as a part-time coordinator. This included grant writing and reporting, developing the artistic programming, hiring festival coordination staff and overseeing general organizational governance. Basically, everything. While this model met VIVA!’s primary needs, as time passed it became daunting to the partners, who were already responsible for their respective calendars of artistic activities. For a community operating with limited time, money and energy, a punctual commitment of this scale was feasible but its repetition, and consequent development, was increasingly challenging to oversee.

The motivation to hire permanent staff was logical, a natural response to our organisation’s growth that was made possible by a small operating grant from the municipal arts council. After being financed exclusively through project grants for more than 6 years – public funding programs that provide no guarantee to any or all of the requested monies – the arrival of modest funds renewed on a two-year cycle was a relief and a celebrated accomplishment. We had reached the first step in organisational sustainability.

However, hiring a general coordinator also marked VIVA!’s first major structural shift away from an entirely shared endeavour towards an autonomous one. While this was done to facilitate the increasingly labourious collaborative process, it also made visible the inherent unsustainability of the platform as it was originally conceived. For the initiative to persist, change was necessary.

Action, Alice de Visscher, 2011. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

Action, Alice de Visscher, 2011. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

When It Changes

It is evident that some adaptation is required as an initiative of any sort develops, particularly a collaborative one. To think otherwise would assume that all initiatives begin in their ideal form. This is rarely true. From limited funds to technical learning curves, the first iteration is the real version of the dream (manifest but likely compromised or scaled back). A second and third chance can allow for meaningful fine-tuning of both process and form. It is in this repetition that clarity takes shape and the learning provided by the previous experiences can be reintegrated to better align the dream with its reality. But at some point, inherently, these shifts stop refining and start expanding under the motto of bigger, better, more.

This type of expansion, which is currently at the heart of most organisational growth in Canada, is linked to a neoliberal pressure to demonstrate health and relevance through adaptability and consistent development. For fear of becoming complacent, homeostasis, a well-balanced context in which to reflexively and creatively execute our work, is not an option. We do not ask how to keep focus in a constantly shifting context, but rather how to thrive in it.

These capitalist values of perpetual growth have been internalized by many non-profits in the cultural sector. After years of constantly defending our value through an ability to do more with less (under the constant fear of funding cuts and fuelled by the belief that we will eventually be rewarded for our sacrifices), we reach a point at which we can no longer tell if we are privileging the sustainability of the organisation or the needs of the communities we are serving. And, because there is pain in admitting that we (organizations or initiatives) are no longer suited for a context – or that the context is not suited for us – we adapt to persist, regardless of whether we should or not.

Action artifact, Tomasz Szrama, 2013. Photo: Christian Bujold

Action artifact, Tomasz Szrama, 2013. Photo: Christian Bujold

When Will It End

Since I was hired, VIVA!, like most non-profit organizations (I will venture to claim), is constantly making decisions to not quit, to adapt for the sake of sustainability. While this can be commendable, the concern lies in adapting to the point at which we are no longer the thing we set out to be, or worse, we are no longer a thing that is truly needed.

My challenge over the years has been to ensure that the organization’s desire to persist does not distance us from our values, that our repetition does not privilege our own continuity over the collective interests and needs of our community. This is more difficult than I had expected. For a collaborative platform like VIVA!, there is temptation to opt for a more efficient, normative and autonomous structure while instituting administrative stability. However, by resisting equating our organizational success with independence, we ensure that the initiative remains an active collaboration characterized by co-dependence. This is important because I have come to see our mutual reliance on each other’s financial, material and artistic contributions as a strategy by which to gauge the continued relevance of the platform within our cultural landscape.

Our partners’ enduring willingness to support VIVA! demonstrates that we provide something that cannot be achieved individually. In addition to the more obvious and practical benefits such as pooling resources, multiplying publics, and dividing expenses, working together also allows us to offer artists the opportunity to work in challenging, unpredictable and risk-taking ways that would be impossible to support individually in any durational form.

Within this logic of purposeful co-dependence, I suspect that when VIVA!’s shared benefits cease to match the investment required of our partners (due to shifts in context or practice), they will no longer be willing to contribute to the platform’s existence. Having become parasitic, the initiative will be forced to dissolve.

This self-destruct logic was unconsciously built into the organization in 2006, but is actively preserved by me because it operates as a barometer measuring our pertinence amongst our peers. The collaborative structure keeps us in check. While it is admittedly uncertain, it ensures that we are responding to shared community interests and not just continuing our activities for the sake of singular longevity. As such, VIVA! has privileged remaining relevant over becoming sustainable.

 

Workshop, TouVA, 2009. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

Workshop, TouVA, 2009. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

 

 

What Drives Us? Thoughts on Festival Sustainability

SOPHIE LE-PHAT HO & KATJA MELZER

ABSTRACT: The idea of addressing the issue of festival sustainability came up during the preparations for The HTMlles 11 | ZÉR0 FUTUR{E}, in Montreal – a city of festivals. As part of the festival programming, a forum was created which gathered local and international festival professionals. A second forum took place one year later during the CYNETART festival in Dresden 2015, bringing in more critical voices and personal perspectives.

 

Photo: The HTMlles 11, Studio XX (Montreal) 2014. 

Photo: The HTMlles 11, Studio XX (Montreal) 2014.

 

Festivals are interesting creatures. They usually emerge from, with and for a specific community and help to build it. Because they are usually meant to be recurrent, with time, festivals become bigger and institutionalize. Sometimes, they disappear. Often, they disappear because they are underfunded, lose relevance, and/or because organizers leave the field due to often precarious working conditions. Within the current non-profit art world festival organizers need to be very creative to assure the survival of these initiatives while also constantly questioning their mandate or raison-d’être.

htmlles_festival_sustainability_discussion_sophiebehindpalmtree_

Photo: The HTMlles 11, Studio XX, 2014.

About The HTMlles: Feminist Festival of Media Arts + Digital Culture

The idea of addressing the issue of festival sustainability came up during the preparations for The HTMlles 11 | ZÉR0 FUTUR{E}. The HTMlles is a feminist media arts festival, founded in 1997 in Montreal – a city of festivals. All year-round, visitors and Montrealers have the opportunity to attend over 100 different festivals presenting music, theatre, comedy, food and more. The cultural scene is quite dense and in certain areas highly competitive; public and private funds are limited as is the attention of audiences. Working on the concept for the HTMlles’ 11th edition in 2014, various questions arose concerning the current and future relevance of the festival mandate, new ways to reach out to different audiences while staying pertinent for the community, working conditions of staff and volunteers, strategic partnerships and many more.

As part of the festival programming, a forum was created which gathered local and international festival professionals. In a public roundtable discussion and internal workshop sessions, strategies towards a long-term impact of cultural work, as well as best-practices and their possible implementation in different geopolitical contexts were presented and discussed.

In terms of The HTMlles, we shared our concerns around the competitive context for festivals, the lack of appropriate resources, the expectation from funders to make money, and the pressure on human resources to produce a major festival almost from scratch every two years. The HTMlles was founded by Studio XX, a feminist artist-run centre focused on technological exploration, creation and critical reflection. From its origins in the 90s, as a gathering of women web artists who wanted to exchange IRL, The HTMlles became a more ambitious new media art festival of which the funding and organizational structure gradually detached itself from Studio XX (different grants and budgets from the operational funding of the centre; different staff hired on contract). These changes had their benefits (seemingly growth and development, artistic freedom) but also their limits or drawbacks, namely the exhaustion that came with building a new infrastructure for each edition. We realized that The HTMlles historically served as a catalyst for Studio XX in terms of experimentation, presentation and visibility. Namely, the previous edition implemented a new model that addressed competition and scarcity of resources: the festival partnered with other feminist artist-run centres as well as research centres in order to bring different feminist communities together but also to mutualize resources. However, these outcomes were short lived since the festival team was not permanent. Moreover, given overlapping responsibilities, tensions would systematically occur between the permanent and the contractual staff.

Following the collective reflection and skillsharing that took place during the work sessions of the forum in Montreal, we came up with a series of recommendations to make The HTMlles a more sustainable endeavour. Essentially, we proposed that the permanent team of Studio XX be responsible for organizing the festival in order to assure continuity and sustainable development. Given the systemic precarity of cultural workers, this would entail cutting down on other projects in order to integrate the festival into the workflow. We also identified which event formats and which partnerships were successful (both artistically and professionally) and therefore worth pursuing and fostering. The upcoming 12th edition was organized taking all our recommendations into consideration. We shall soon see the results and reassess the new strategies as the next edition takes place in November 2016.

About the Online Publication

The first forum which took place during The HTMlles 11, in 2014 in Montreal, sparked an interest in continuing the exchange while opening it up to additional professionals working and experimenting with new formats. A second forum took place one year later during the CYNETART festival in Dresden 2015, bringing in more critical voices and personal perspectives.

CYNETART 2015 | TMA Hellerau, Festspielhaus Hellgrau. Photo: © David Pinzer, David Pinzer Fotografie, http:// www.david-pinzer.de

CYNETART 2015 | TMA Hellerau, Festspielhaus Hellgrau. Photo: © David Pinzer, David Pinzer Fotografie, http://www.david-pinzer.de

This online publication seeks to shed light on the topic of “festival sustainability” following a very hands-on approach. Festival organizers, curators and independent cultural workers share their daily-work experiences and ideas to develop sustainable structures in the areas of funding, organization, community outreach and socio-political context. Acknowledging that festivals run on different models, grassroots collectives were invited along with more institutionalized organizations to share their approaches towards sustainable cultural work.

Although not everyone who participated in the meetings contributed to this present publication; many of the thoughts and ideas that have been expressed in a formal or informal way found their way into it. While focusing on festivals, the texts can be seen as part of a larger discussion around cultural sustainability, hopefully encouraging more engaging future debates.

 

 

Digital art festival sustainability: diversity of artistic genres and differentiation in cultural perspective

JENNY PICKETT & JULIEN OTTAVI

ABSTRACT: Why organise a digital arts festival today? Why a festival? What difficulties and differences separate a well funded commercial festival from an underfunded and non-commercial festival? What are their perspectives on art, curatorial themes, publics and politics? What part do political aesthetic choices play and how can we change the perspectives of cultural policies?

Chrysalis Marije Baalman. Photo: APO33

Chrysalis Marije Baalman. Photo: APO33

 

A festival is a moment that, historically defined, celebrates a community or people having a common interest or a common religion. It’s an event that comes to break the repetition and rigorous aspects of daily life.

The monstrosity of this paradox between event and repetition announces, perhaps, another kind of thinking, an impossible thinking: the impossible event (there must be resemblance to the past which cancels the singularity of the event) and the only possible event (since any event in order to be event worthy of its name must be singular and non-resembling).1

We are facing this paradox in such a way that the very survival of some festivals becomes a generator of debate, obliging its main actors (organisers, curators, artists) to write articles, organise meetings, seminars and debates about development and sustainability. Rather than focusing only on organising our festivals and establishing networks of curators and artists, we are seeking answers by expanding our networks of festivals, with the aim of finding solutions to the shared difficulties we face.

Why organise a digital arts festival today? Why a festival? What difficulties and differences separate a well funded commercial festival and an underfunded and non-commercial festival? What are their perspectives on art, curatorial themes, publics and politics? What part do political aesthetic choices play and how can we change the perspectives of cultural policies?

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Cinechine, Mariske de Groot, Photo: APO33

A festival to celebrate the diversity of digital art : a question or a reality?

Among the networks of DIY (do it yourself) medium-sized festivals, the reasons to organise are varied and many. Such events hold in common a passion for contemporary artistic trends and research as well as personal and local cultural enrichment. For the purposes of this article we will focus on the experiences of organisers and artists in the digital arts.

Electropixel Festival in Nantes was created in 2010 by APO33, an artist run organisation founded in 1997. The festival aims to create a space to celebrate a wide community of artists, across different genres of artistic practices linked to the use of electronics and digital production tools. The festival also promotes art that uses Free Libre Open Source technologies but not exclusively like festivals such as Piksel in Bergen, Norway. However, Piksel is a good role model for Electropixel, with its perspective of the festival as a hub and artistic lab open to the public. Electropixel attempts to respond to an increase in demand from local and international digital and electronic arts communities for punctual diffusion and a meeting point in Nantes. Many such events and festivals produced by APO33 have been based on a “call for proposals” which allows more people to participate, brings about new ideas, and creates a space for young and emerging artists to diffuse their work and participate in the event. Electropixel festival has been a challenge for APO33 as an art collective: to organise an event hosting 40 to 50 artists on a very limited budget, and often with limited time.

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Offenes Netz, Anke Wunschmann, Achim Wollscheil, Photo: APO33

The repetition in history: the David & Goliath of digital art festivals

The Argument that the public wants kitsch is dishonest; the argument that it needs relaxation, at least incomplete. The need for the bad, illusory, deceptive things is generated by the all-powerful propaganda apparatus; but the need for relaxation, to the extent that it really – and today with justification – exists, is itself also a product of a circumstance that absorbs people’s strength and time in a such a fashion that they are no longer capable of other things.2

During the last few years we have been confronted as organisers by the inequality between well-funded popular digital art festivals and underfunded non-commercial digital art festivals. This is often related to a certain cultural/political vision, with the view that “art is entertainment” and/or a product of instant gratification to be consumed. As expressed by Adorno, this way of seeing art is dishonest and absorbs people’s strength and time in the same way that watching a Hollywood blockbuster does, or absorbing continuous television flows, or drinking up pop music at the local night club. Digital art is being split into two main categories: the outsized “spectacle” with big screens, large scale video mapping, club DJs, VJs and electronica in addition to snappy interactive gaming designs. Alternatively there are a number of artists experimenting with the digital through the misuse of technologies or hacking, repurposing and questioning the relation to communities, environment, interactivity, art and other niche genres.

These approaches to curation and medium frequently cross over, however there tends to be a reluctance from the larger festivals to take risks on critical content and lesser known artists or artists whose work is not perceived as easily marketable to sponsors and the general public. Having received funding for the first two editions of Electropixel Festival from “DiCream CNC – emergent festival fund” which only supports festivals for a maximum of two years, Electropixel has since faced problems securing annual funding, yet the passion from artists and the appetite of the public to discover these art forms has been a driving factor in the festival’s continuation to date.

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Sous casques, Jules Wysocki, Photo: Xoel Friere

Cultural policies, giant events and mass cultural consumption paradigms

It can be difficult for smaller festivals to survive, defending their values and maintaining long term relationships with artists in a climate that favours the phenomenon of large audiences gathered for a throwaway Instagram moment and a quick click on the thumbs up of social media for the validation of cultural policies.

This is where it gets tricky: elected representatives across the globe help and support large “commercially successful” events to varying degrees with public funding, facilitating their continued development. Often this serves the “happy people will vote for me” idea of arts and culture and disguises weak policies and vision of the arts in general.

Electropixel 2016 was the first time, in 6 years, that our locally elected cultural representatives attended the festival, which was both surprising and unexpected. They were interested in the artistic content of Electropixel Festival: to discover the artists’ works and exchange with us. They understood the importance of such a festival in the city and the community. Whether this translates into sustainable funding dedicated to the festival remains to be seen. APO33’s general activities do receive annual funding from local, regional and national bodies. The festival represents a punctual moment to unite a broader public and artists in a single “summer event”.

Is funding the only solution for this kind of festival to survive? Over the years, we have tested the different possibilities available, outside of our main funding system: administration, political seduction and the expertise of micro-budget management. What we found was often worse and very difficult to achieve: philanthropy and sponsorship for art and culture in France is very poor, not very well educated about emerging arts and absolutely stingy with regard to the “non-profit” and non commercial. With the aim of showcasing and adding credibility to their products, most of this private funding goes towards popular mass cultural events (often already well funded and sustainable), where art and culture is a vehicle to deliver branded pens and caps, and if you are a lucky a couple of hundred euros towards advertising. For a festival like Electropixel this is a dead end; few sponsors are interested in digital art, new music, or anything that is challenging for the public. In the case of philanthropists, culture is dictated by whims and desires of those few moneyed peoples; their individual interest in art offers a narrow market-oriented vision. Philanthropists also demand that artists and organisations fill out more complicated forms than those required to receive public funding in order to receive tax breaks.

Having tested crowdfunding a couple of times, launching campaigns to fund the festival with fans and supporters, we found that relying on the public coming to our events is not a viable option to support the festival. The same is is true of higher entrance fees; it does not bring in enough to cover artist fees, travel, logistics, housing, communication and food.

Diversity seldom forms part of digital art festival objectives, whose selections of certain types of entertainment works to create a hegemony of digital art aesthetics (white and male). In 2013 Female Pressure, an international network of female artists in the fields of electronic music and digital arts founded by Electric Indigo, produced a report on some of the world’s most well attended digital arts and electronic music festivals, laying bare the dire state of female inclusion – at just 8,4% – in shaping cultural aesthetics.3 Today it is imperative that we bring the politicians and arts funding bodies to understand the need to promote greater diversity across the digital arts, by both the artists being represented and spaces afforded to different visions and scales of art and events. Supporting equally those “more challenging” festivals that are taking risks with new artists and more critical or challenging works provides vital spaces for artists to hone their practices and for the public to contemplate and demystify the fast changing technological world in which we live. Even if those festivals are working at different levels and with totally different visions of the digital future, art and of organisations, it is important that “decision makers and leaders” understand the need for alternative places for artists, debates, diffusion and audiences to coexist.

 

 

ENDNOTES

1 Leonard Lawlor, 2014, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/derrida/
2 Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, 1931; p. 133, University of California Press.
3 Female Pressure report: http://www.femalepressure.net/PDFs/fempressreport-03-2013.pdf

 

 

Building a Female Artery in Slovenia: the City of Women Festival

MAJA ŠORLI

ABSTRACT: The essay describes the performance I’m walking behind you and watching you (2013) at the City of Women festival that strengthened the female community and vitalized feminist artistic tradition in Slovenia. An artistic festival, as a kind of meta-event, can serve many functions. It can use events to increase awareness, bring different audiences together, focus in on a chosen topic, strenghten existing artistic practices or provoke new ideas, relationships, partnerships, and art. This was unquestionably true in the “post-modern 90s” when festivals proliferated. Today, however, when the festivalisation of everything, not just artistic events, but also of shopping, sport, education, popular entertainment etc., happens every day, new issues have emerged. The most important challenges can be summarised as follows: How to gain the attention of an audience when there are so many festival events and fewer resources for the arts? How to produce meaningful artistic events (for as many people as possible) and promote them to a target audience? How to ensure a sustainable future for a feminist festival in the 21st century? One suggestion is to include or create an event that embodies as much as possible of the festival’s spirit. In this essay I will present an event called I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You. Presented at the 19th edition of the City of Women festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 2013, it brought together a diverse audience, performing genres, and local as well as national women’s history and presence.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You performance part. Photo: Nada Žgank / City of Women.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You performance part. Photo: Nada Žgank / City of Women.

About the context

Feminist traditions and movements in Slovenia have been repeatedly fragmented by ruptures in national-political systems. From the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) to the socialist Yugoslavia and finally to the capitalist Slovenia, women were busy adjusting to new state orders. A variety of transformations within feminist movements occured in reaction to political changes. In 1991 Slovenia gained its independence and started its transition from a socialist to a capitalist country. Women had to defend the right to abortion in the newly adopted constitution, in December 1991, with public demonstrations, and won an important victory to which many of the future collaborators of the City of Women festival contributed. However, for the feminist community it was one of the rare events connecting women. In the new country, the visibility of women in public space dropped significantly until the birth of the City of Women festival in 1995.

Slovenia is today, in some respects, an emancipated country with equal legal rights for women, abortion on demand, paid maternity leave, legalised same-sex partnerships (adopted only in 2016, but not marriage, adoptions for same-sex couples and artificial inseminations for lesbians), the smallest gender-pay-gap, etc., but on the other hand many inequalities remain in the arts. In 1992 when democratisation hit the arts as well as society at large, an Office for Women’s Policy was established (in 2001 it was renamed the Office for Equal Opportunities and in 2012 it was dissolved and became the Equal Opportunities Department at The Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities). In 1995, four years after Slovenia gained its independence, the Office for Women’s Policy produced the first Slovenian women’s art festival, and for the following editions a private office of the Association for the Promotion of Women in Culture – City of Women was established. This Slovenian version of an international festival of contemporary arts was modelled after the Magdalena Project and named the City of Women. The City of Women addressed the feminist legacy: the festival was transdisciplinary and included not only performances, but also lectures, workshops, discussions, book promotion events, etc., as it still does today.

The Resurgent Half

One of the curators of the visual arts component of the festival writes about the lack of local works that could be described as “womanly or feminist” in the 90s or earlier (Stepančič 35). Put simply, only a very limited number of local artists were doing work, visual or otherwise, that could be labelled feminist, thus restricting the choice of work to be promoted by the festival. However, over the more than 20 years of the festival’s existence, this has changed. There are many different artists whose work can be and is promoted or even produced by the festival. Events that I present in this essay are the results of ongoing festival activity.

In 2013 the festival’s leading theme was “Let’s create a place for ourselves”. Five female artists created a show titled I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You (Hodim za tabo in te gledam). The performance consisted of four elements : a city tour, a live sculpture/monument, a radio intervention, and a video installation as part of the city tour.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You was described as a “female map of the city in which memory holders form missing and ignored stories of women who worked their way through this city”. The multilayered project had two main events: first, a Ljubljana city walking tour around the historical city centre exploring hidden attractions connected to Slovenian women from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It lasted about two hours with one or two female guides – one was always Barbara Kapelj Osredkar, the author of the concept of the project, and occasionally also an expert on the women in focus on the tour. The walk was created for a maximum of 30 people and included stops at houses where prominent Slovenian women had either lived or worked. Periodically the walk was interrupted by physical actions performed by three other artists in the project: Leja Jurišić, Teja Reba and Mia Habib. The actions were always connected to a woman discussed at that particular moment in the tour. At the end of the tour, the group went into an old house where a video installation (described below) was playing and two artists sang their interpretations of Slovenian folk songs.

Barbara Kapelj Osredkar, Leja Jurišić, Teja Reba, Mia Habib, Ana Čigon: HODIM ZA TABO IN GLEDAM TE, Vodstvo – instalacija – performans, 13.10.2013, Mesto žensk / City of Women

Barbara Kapelj Osredkar, Leja Jurišić, Teja Reba, Mia Habib, Ana Čigon: HODIM ZA TABO IN GLEDAM TE, Vodstvo – instalacija – performans, 13.10.2013, Mesto žensk / City of Women

The second part was an event called I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You: Alive Sculpture. Here the creative team stood together and formed an “X” with the help of female volunteers portraying the 129 women described in the book The Forgotten Half (Pozabljena polovica), “dedicated to the lives of 129 of the most important women from all fields of social and artistic activities in Slovenia from the past two centuries”. This manifestation took place at Kongresni trg, a special public square in Ljubljana where many important social, political, cultural and artistic events have taken place throughout the city’s history. The volunteers wore sashes, each labelled with the name of one of the 129 women from The Forgotten Half; the organisers of the event held short speeches from a small stage and podium in a conference format: besides short opening speeches, three guests spoke and at the end a female choir sang two songs. The event was concluded with a photo shoot and volunteers chose perennial plants in memory of the each of the event and woman represented.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You: Alive Sculpture. Photo: Almedina Meštrovac / City of Women.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You: Alive Sculpture. Photo: Almedina Meštrovac / City of Women.

The event creators also made an intervention on radio ARS, the third channel of the national Radio Slovenia. This channel broadcasts cultural programming, one such programme is The Stage, a weekly show about contemporary theatre in Slovenia. In the edition of October 8, 2013, the artists talked about the opening of a new monument dedicated to women. The majority of the show is fictitious: the monument is composed of 129 female statues made of white porcelain standing in water and thus through their reflections, they multiply to represent all other forgotten women. In the show they discussed the reasons behind the monument, the materials, the location, the production, they also name the contemporary artists who made the sculptures, etc. Only in the last 2 to 3 minutes did they reveal the utopian vision of the broadcast and that there will not be such a monument. They ended by inviting listeners to participate in the live sculpture monument.

The video Ljubljana City of Women (Ljubljana mesto žensk, 2013), part of the city tour, has two tracks – an audio track in which two artists are interviewing people on the streets. They are asked if they know of any important historical Slovenian women to whom they would build a monument in Ljubljana. On the visual video track, however, we see Vegova Street in Ljubljana, in reality colonised by male statues which in the video are transformed into female statues. It is a humorous critique of the lack of monuments to women in Ljubljana and an expression of the desire for a female artery in Ljubljana’s city centre.

Conclusion

The City of Women festival had a socially committed agenda from its beginnings: to promote female artists and to increase the visibility of women in general. The festival received a lot of publicity at the beginning, but in the 21st century it was absorbed into the sea of various cultural events and festivals and became less visible (see Šorli). Nevertheless it succeeded in building a small but steady community of artists who continue to make intersectional feminist artworks. Today, when many spend their lives in isolated bubbles, and when Slovenia no longer has the Women’s Policy Office, it is very valuable to have at least one continuous agency that deals with injustices shared by most women and their creative and artistic investigation.

The performance described above brought together 19th and 21st century history, social sciences (The Forgotten Half), radio, visual and performing arts, feminist legacies and visions, women of all ages as performers and audiences. Such a complex event in a short time span built a community of women, and thus vitalized feminist tradition in Slovenia. Although the connections made at the performance were brief, many women who took part continue their feminist work in social sciences and performing arts and meet at new editions of City of Women, providing a sustainable future for the festival itself.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Stepančič, Lilijana. “Pionirski časi. Osebni spomin na prvi festival Mesto žensk.” [Pioneer Times: The Memoirs of the First City of Women festival] Časopis za kritiko znanosti. 43. 261 (2015): 23–39.
Šorli, Maja. “Podoba Mesta žensk v slovenskih medijij.” [Images of the City of Women festival in the Slovenian Media] Časopis za kritiko znanosti. 43. 261 (2015): 90–99.